Whether you loved or hated Rogue One, there’s no denying that the digitally recreated Peter Cushing was a shock. Digitally de-aging Carrie Fisher for a Leia cameo at the movie’s end was one thing; digitally bringing a person back from the dead crossed a threshold.
Following Carrie Fisher’s death in 2016, a year before the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the question of how to handle Leia’s unfinished storyline became a particularly concerning one, with the uncanny images of Rogue One still on fans’ minds. Fisher had finished shooting her scenes for The Last Jedi, but hadn’t completed some dialogue re-recording in post-production, which meant that director Rian Johnson had to stitch her previously recorded lines together. A single scene — that of Leia flying through space — was created digitally; the rest was all the real Fisher. So where did that leave Leia’s arc for The Rise of Skywalker?
In an interview upon the release of The Last Jedi, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said that the company had no intention to keep using CGI copies of actors, and that Fisher wouldn’t appear even in archival footage. “Sadly, Carrie will not be in [Episode] IX,” she told Vanity Fair in December 2017.
But plans changed between then and now, as Leia plays a fairly prominent — if also somewhat strange — part in the last Star Wars film. “When we looked at the footage from The Force Awakens,” director J. J. Abrams said during the Rise of Skywalker press tour, “and realized we had a number of scenes we could use, and write scenes around, it was suddenly like, ‘Oh my God, we could tell the story with Leia in the film.’”
The leftover footage amounted to eight minutes, according to Fisher’s brother Todd Fisher. It was a matter of reverse-engineering from there, building scenes around Leia’s existing dialogue rather than writing them linearly. “Hopefully, if it works, it will be an invisible thing and if you didn’t know, you would never know,” Abrams said. “But we got to tell the story with Leia that we would have told had Carrie lived. And that’s kind of incredible.”
Unfortunately, the effect isn’t quite as seamless as all that.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker follow.]
Early in The Rise of Skywalker, Leia’s dialogue inevitably feels stilted, as if she’s not a part of the same conversation as the character she’s supposed to be speaking to. Her scenes with Rey feel like something out of the new video-game-set Jumanji movies; Leia is the Rhys Darby equivalent, an NPC forced to speak in canned lines rather than actually responding to what’s being said to her. She also has a bit of digital fuzz around her — the filmmakers have yet to speak specifically about how they repurposed Fisher’s old footage — and she always appears in the same standing position.
The stitching together is less alarming than a flashback in which a young Luke and Leia are partaking in lightsaber training in a thick forest. The two of them are initially wearing helmets, but then lift their visors up, revealing their digitally recreated faces. Both look strange, but Leia particularly so — she looks eerily as if Billie Lourd (Fisher’s daughter, and a minor player in the new Star Wars trilogy) had stood in for the role, and had her features digitally altered to look more like Fisher’s. It’s basically that terrifying Rogue One moment all over again.
The flashback is especially egregious because the reveal is an unnecessary one — the narration has already told us which characters we’re looking at, so there’s no real need for us to see Fisher’s CGI face. The repurposed footage at least feels justifiable, as each member of the Skywalker family figures prominently into the end of the new trilogy, and having Leia missing would be more noticeable than having her Frankensteined into the movie.
“There was no way, as I’ve said before, to tell the story without Leia,” Abrams reiterated during the tour. “It’s the Skywalker saga. She is the living Skywalker in our story. You don’t want to start the story and say something happened to her in between movies. It didn’t feel right.”
While it would be strange to have such a major character die off-screen, Leia’s arc in The Rise of Skywalker feels less about her than about Ben/Kylo Ren. Leia uses the very last of her life force to turn her son, and the flashback also reveals that she gave up her Jedi training because she had a vision about Ben’s fate. It’s a sidelining that feels like the result of Abrams having limited footage to work with, despite the fact that Leia’s reappearance as a Force ghost confirms that she was truly connected to the Force. Had Fisher been alive, would Leia’s arc have felt more fleshed out?
That said, given that the Skywalker Saga has come to an end, Lucasfilm should have an easier time keeping its initial promise of no more CGI actors.